Should Britain be run by Tesco?

The company's record ain't great

Congratulations to Alex Brummer, who won two prizes at this week's inaugural Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He picked up a gong for financial column of the year and also bagged a second prize for best magazine commentator, for his work in the New Statesman.

But I have to disagree with the great man about his column in today's Daily Mail, headlined: "What if Tesco ran the country?"

Let's be honest. We all love Tesco. OK, let me rephrase that. Even those of us who care about low pay, workers' rights and corporate social responsibility and who normally take a rather dim view of big business often end up making the confession that I am about to make: I spend about two or three nights a week shopping at my local Tesco superstore. I can't help it -- Tesco makes life so convenient.

But I have to draw the line at running Britain along the lines of Sir Terry Leahy's multibillion-pound corporate behemoth. Here's something to give you a flavour of Alex's column:

How different Britain might have been had Gordon Brown got his way and managed to persuade Sir Terry Leahy, the quiet man who leads Tesco, to run the National Health Service.

But if Leahy, who is married to a GP, had agreed to take on this mammoth task, he would never have made the botch of a job that New Labour has achieved . . .

In so many other areas, a country run according to Tesco principles would have meant a dramatic improvement in the population's living standards . . .

There are so many other areas where Britain could have benefited from the Tesco touch . . .

Allowing mistakes to drag would be anathema in Tescoland.

Hold on! As I said, I'm as big a fan of Tesco as the next man when it comes to a convenient and cheap weekly shop . . . but running the country? It would be AWFUL. Alex makes no reference to the various critiques of Tesco made in recent years by the green, sustainable and trade union movements.

He makes no mention, for example, of the Competition Commission's recommendation, early this month, that the government "take the necessary steps to introduce a competition test in planning decisions on larger grocery stores". The CC's proposal, writes Alex Renton, "acknowledges that 'Tesco towns' like Swansea, Truro and Inverness -- where £3 in every £4 is spent with the retailer -- are a bad thing". (By the way, Renton also writes that "if you do shop at Tesco, by the way, bear in mind that the store has a 30 per cent share of British grocery retail and has been doing gloriously out of you through the recession, with sales up yet again in the first six months of the year, and pre-tax profits now just under £1.5bn for the period".)

In his Mail column, extolling the virtues of a hypothetical Tesco-led Britain, Brummer also fails to mention any the numerous local campaigns against the firm's expansion plans across the country. Nor does he mention a story reported in his own paper, in August, about how Tesco used "bogus" statistics to try to convince the residents of Manningtree to back "its efforts to expand its supermarket empire":

Britain's biggest retailer sent leaflets to residents in an Essex town claiming its own research demonstrated there was a "need and demand" for a new supermarket.

However, the telephone poll used as the basis of the claim showed that just 38 out of the 440 people surveyed wanted a new supermarket -- 8.6 per cent.

While even fewer people, just 20, said they would like to see a new Tesco.

Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) condemns the leaflet as misleading and has ordered the supermarket not to send it out again.

But perhaps most importantly, if Brummer is right, and Leahy would do a better job of running the country than Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, how does he explain this letter from Barack Obama, of June 2008? The then presidential candidate and junior senator from Illinois took time out from his campaign to write to Sir Terry, complaining about the firm's lack of engagement with "community stakeholders" in the United States and lending his support to a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, which Tesco's American operation, Fresh & Easy, had refused to meet with, let alone recognise. "I strongly request that you revisit that decision," wrote Obama, warning that workplace rights would have a prominent place on his presidential policy platform. "I again urge you to reconsider your policy of non-engagement in the United States."

If you think Brown had problems with Obama, how do you imagine a Tesco-led Foreign Office would handle the "special relationship"?

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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